Jerry Yellin, fighter pilot in last combat mission of World War II, dies at 93

Jerry Yellin in 2016, holding a photo of himself when he was a fighter pilot in World War II. (Richard Bell/For the book “The Last Veterans of WWII”)

By Harrison Smith December 21 at 6:17 PM

The last combat mission of World War II began Aug. 15, 1945, when fighter pilot Jerry Yellin and his wingman, 19-year-old Philip Schlamberg, took off from Iwo Jima to attack airfields near Nagoya, Japan.

The war seemed all but over. Germany had surrendered in May, and much of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in ruins, decimated by atomic bombs dropped the previous week. If Mr. Yellin heard a code word — “Utah” — Japan’s rumored surrender had occurred, and he was to cancel his mission and return to Iwo Jima, a rocky island that he had helped secure months earlier and that offered a base for American bombers headed north to Japan.

Later that day, on what was still Aug. 14 in the United States, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender. For some reason, however, Mr. Yellin and Schlamberg never got the message.

Taking on antiaircraft fire in their P-51 Mustangs, they strafed their targets and headed home, passing through a thick bank of clouds. Schlamberg, who had previously admitted a sense of foreboding to Mr. Yellin, saying, “If we go on this mission, I’m not coming back,” never emerged from the haze.

Disappearing from Mr. Yellin’s wing, he was presumed dead and considered one of the last Americans to be killed in combat during World War II.

Mr. Yellin in 2015. (Lightfinder Public Relations)

Mr. Yellin, who landed on Iwo Jima to discover that the war had ended three hours earlier, and who later became an outspoken advocate of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, died Dec. 21 at his son Steven Yellin’s home in Orlando. He was 93 and had lung cancer, his son said.

For Mr. Yellin, the war was a hellish necessity, essential for halting the spread of Nazism and Japanese aggression. But he also spoke forthrightly about its costs, including the mental anguish over memories of combat that nearly led him to suicide. He recalled with particular horror the experience of landing on war-torn Iwo Jima for the first time, where “there wasn’t a blade of grass and there were 28,000 bodies rotting in the sun.”

“The sights and the sounds and the smells of dead bodies and the sights of Japanese being bulldozed into mass graves absolutely never went away,” he told the Washington Times in August.

Mr. Yellin, a captain in the 78th Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Forces, counted 16 downed pilots in his unit during the war, including Schlamberg. For years afterward, he struggled to keep a steady job, moving a dozen times in the United States and Israel (where he settled, at one point, partly in protest of the Vietnam War).

He eventually found solace through Transcendental Meditation, a twice-daily technique of silent concentration that his wife introduced him to in 1975 after she saw the practice’s originator, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, on “The Merv Griffin Show.”

Mr. Yellin soon began speaking to other veterans who struggled to adapt to civilian life, and in 2010 he co-founded Operation Warrior Wellness, a division of the David Lynch Foundation that helps veterans learn Transcendental Meditation. He said he was inspired to start the group after a friend and Army veteran killed himself that year. Mr. Yellin received support in promotional videos by actress Scarlett Johansson, a grandniece of Schlamberg.

“The feeling that one has when a buddy dies? You just can’t emulate that. We have a burden civilians will never understand,” Mr. Yellin told The Washington Post earlier this month, shortly after the release of “The Last Fighter Pilot,” an account of his World War II service written with Don Brown.

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Jerome Yellin was born into a Jewish family in Newark on Feb. 15, 1924. His father was a real estate developer.

Mr. Yellin had just graduated from high school in Hillside, N.J., and was working the night shift at a steel mill, saving money before starting college, when Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Two months later, on his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces, pursuing an adolescent love of aviation that had led him to build models of World War I-era planes.

Mr. Yellin was slightly nearsighted and initially failed an eye exam for pilots. “The doctor told me to go home and stay in a dark room, eat a lot of carrots, don’t read anything and come back in three days and take the test again,” he said in a 2014 oral history.

In place of the rabbit food, he sought help from his mother, who served on the draft board. She filched a copy of the eye chart, allowing him to memorize the letters and pass the exam on his second try.

Mr. Yellin proved a skilled pilot, successfully bailing out of his plane when the engine locked up during a training mission near Hawaii (he said he spent nine hours in a life raft before he was picked up by a boat) and escorting B-29 bombers on 19 missions over Japan.

His military honors included the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal, and in recent years he served as the national spokesman for the Spirit of ’45, a nonprofit organization that promotes the legacy of World War II veterans.

His wife of 65 years, the former Helene Schulman, died in 2015. Survivors include four children, David Yellin of Winter Haven, Fla., Steven Yellin of Orlando, Michael Yellin of Montclair, N.J., and Robert Yellin of Kyoto, Japan; a sister; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Yellin later told the New York Post he had long believed the Japanese were “terrible people,” and felt no remorse at the time he participated in bombing runs on Tokyo and other cities. “They did horrific things in China, and I saw horrific things done in Iwo Jima to dead Marines — faces bashed in to get gold out of their teeth. They just were not human beings to me then.”

His views began to change after a business trip to Tokyo in 1983, when he was working as a real estate consultant for banks. He said he “looked up through the buildings in the Ginza” — a popular shopping district — and envisioned B-29s “dropping bombs not on those people but on me.”

Mr. Yellin’s son Robert later moved to Japan and became engaged to a Japanese woman. Mr. Yellin was shocked when he found out her father, Taro Yamakawa, trained as a kamikaze pilot and worked at an airfield during World War II.

The fathers bonded, Mr. Yellin said, after discussing their flying strategies and experiences during the war with the help of a translator. They eventually struck up a correspondence, and Mr. Yellin described Yamakawa as his best friend.

“Taro said that in Buddhism, the soul of the dead is worshiped for 50 years as an individual, then, all souls merge to become one and are looked upon as equal,” Mr. Yellin told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1995, describing a letter from his friend. “Taro wrote that it has been 50 years since the war. It is time for the souls to merge and put it behind us.”